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If you can find the place, Annapoorna offers a distinctively spicy blend of subcontinental and Middle Kingdom cuisine
Even if you live in Irvine, I bet you haven’t heard of Annapoorna. It’s only a month old, and its poor location easily escapes notice. And even now that I’ve made you aware of it, you’ll probably still need help to find it. So I’ll give you the same hints a reader gave me: It’s on Walnut at Culver, around the corner from Lamppost Pizza and Seattle’s Best, two doors down from Quiznos, next to the dry cleaners, the last storefront nearest the alley. Didn’t think there was anything back there, did you? Yeah, me neither.
Found it? Congrats. You just discovered Irvine’s newest Indian restaurant. Not only that, but it’s also the first in the city to incorporate Chinese flavors into a cuisine already complex and diverse. Found in a section of the menu called “Indo-Chinese,” these are adaptations akin to orange chicken and broccoli beef—dishes repatriated to fit the palates of the people eating them. Yes, it’s like what P.F. Chang’s has done to Americanize Chinese food, but reaching across the Himalayas rather than across the Pacific. Imagine the typical cornstarch-thickened sauces made extra garlicky and acidic, fried rice permeated with aromatics, and something called “chilli chicken.” This is food as intensely spiced as it is spicy.
With most of the dishes in this category, there’s the option of having it “dry” or with “gravy.” Opt for gravy, especially with the gobi Manchurian. The vegetarian dish consists of crisply deep-fried, batter-encased cauliflower doused with a searing sauce as sharp as a knife’s edge, pointed with a vinegary bite and softened by soy. Spoon the extra gravy over white rice to achieve enlightenment.
The gravy helps to spread the burn around the mouth equally. But if you choose to freebase it and go “dry,” be warned, especially with that chilli chicken. For that dish, battered chicken chunks are tossed in a wok with enough pulverized, dried chiles to cover every piece—it might as well be rolled in gunpowder. The effect is volatile and explosive.
They also prepare a spice-perfumed, fluffy Szechwan fried rice with bits of carrot and onion. However, I much prefer stepping over to the Indian side of the menu for their biryanis, India’s indigenous rice dishes. They exist in the same dimension as rice pilaf and paella, but they are more aggressive. Each of the biryanis eats like a one-pot meal and comes with a wedge of lemon for squeezing. One has chicken legs strewn about the grains; another, hard-boiled eggs. Feeling peckish for red meat? There’s no beef (duh!), but you can ask for goat or lamb for $2 more.
Whatever you order—be it the Indo-Chinese or the traditional fare—do not pass up Annapoorna’s dosas. These giant crepes made from rice and lentils are rolled big enough for a model train to tunnel through. As I sat wide-eyed in front of a plate with my sada dosa, the owner came over and asked, “You think that’s big? Try the paper masala dosa!” He stretched out his arms to gesture its length. And, of course, he was right. It looked like a bazooka. We started tearing at it from the outside, munching on its light, porous crispness and slightly cheesy tang. Once we reached the middle, we encountered a ball of curried mashed potatoes. Sambar—a spicy lentil soup—is served on the side along with two chutneys for dipping: The coconut is as basic as mother’s milk, and the tomato tastes like someone had pushed spaghetti sauce through a spicy sieve.
Since the dosas are made-to-order, they’re more a staple of the dinner menu than the lunch buffet. The Indo-Chinese items are also usually a buffet no-show. But in their place are items you probably wouldn’t think to order on your own. During one buffet outing, I saw channa masala (garbanzo beans stewing in spicy tomato gravy) and Andhra chicken curry (dark-meat chicken on the bone simmering in a dark, caustic sauce designed to activate your sweat glands). Plus, the pakoras will be as good as you’ll ever have—and you can have as much of them as you want! So, still remember how to get there, right?
Annapoorna, 14450 Culver Dr., Ste. A, Irvine, (949) 651-1144; myannapoorna.com. Open for lunch, Tues.-Sun., 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner, Tues.-Sat., 5:30-10 p.m.; Sun., 5:30-9:30 p.m. Lunch buffet, $9.95-$10.95; dinner for two, $20-$40, food only.